By Jideofor Adibe
Buhari's recent apology to Nigerians over the illegal sacking of some vice chancellors presents a golden opportunity for another re-invention of the president. It should be recalled that the Minister of Education Malam Adamu Adamu had in February 2016 announced the sacking of the vice chancellors of 12 Federal Universities established by the Goodluck administration as well as the vice chancellor of the National Open University of Nigeria.
The action of the Minister was a clear violation of the Nigerian University Miscellaneous (Amendment) Act 2003 under which the appointment of vice chancellors is regarded as a tenured appointment. Under the Act, if a vice chancellor should be removed from office before the expiration of his/her tenure, it is the Board of the Governing Council of the affected University that is empowered to recommend or effect that removal. Remarkably the Minister of Education also dissolved the Boards of the Governing Council of the affected Universities which has the power to recommend the removal of the Vice Chancellors he sacked. The Minister's appointment of new vice chancellors to replace the ones he sacked also failed to follow due process. Understandably the Academic Staff Union of Universities and other civil society groups condemned the action and threatened further actions if the decision was not rescinded.
Speaking at the NEC meeting of the APC in Abuja on March 24 2016, the President was quoted as saying:
“We gave a blanket order which we had to rescind when we said all boards are suspended or dissolved… We had to go back and lick our vomit in terms of universities councils because we found out that according to their laws, they cannot choose vice chancellors unless the councils sit and interview candidates who want to be VCs.”
The President also admitted that he did not succeed in the elections conducted by INEC in Kogi, Bayelsa and Rivers States which were not only marred by violence but were, as in every election conducted so far by the current INEC, defined by such vocabularies as 're-run' and 'inconclusive'.
Though it was not the first time Buhari would apologize to Nigerians – he did so in December 2015 over the long queues in petrol filling stations while presenting the 2016 budget to a joint session of the National Assembly – it was probably the first time he took the blame for the failure. The routine weeping boy for all the problems his regime has faced has been the Jonathan government or the 'mess left by 16 years of PDP's rule'.
While the President saw his recent apology as amounting to the government returning to its vomit, I see it differently as a huge opportunity to re-invent him again.
Though I have been critical of some of the policies of the President, I have also always reminded his critics that just as it takes a while after a plane has taken off before it can get to a cruising height, so also can it take a new government time to find its rhythm. This means in essence that it is not abnormal for a new government to fumble, grope and gaffe before finding its bearing – provided that such a government is 'teachable' and willing to learn from its mistakes. Buhari's critics have worried on whether he is 'teachable', and also whether he has enough humility in him to reverse course in the face of superior arguments or overwhelming evidence that a chosen path is not working. There have also been concerns on whether he will be able to provide enough political cover to his aides who incur public criticisms in the course of their jobs.
Buhari's latest apology may have unwittingly provided some tentative answers to these concerns. With the apology, he may have signalled a putative new Buhari who may be willing to learn and also sent a signal to some fanatical Buharists who feel a godly obligation not only to defend every action of the president (no matter how unreasonable) but also to rudely insult anyone who begs to differ from the President's choices.
In the same vein, by not publicly chiding Malam Adamu Adamu for that illegal action he may also have provided a tentative answer on whether he will have the courage of Obasanjo in defending his political aides who incur public anger or make mistakes in their jobs. It is instructive that the presidency also came to the defence of Dr Kachukwu Ibe against Bola Tinubu's opportunistic attempt to ingratiate himself to the public using Dr Ibe's rather insensitive remarks over the long queues in petrol stations as the mask. The minister had suggested that he was no magician to fix the problem of long queues in filling stations at a time the citizens expected him to empathize with them over their plight – even if what he said was the truth. While Obasanjo was adept at providing political cover to his aides who took risks or made genuine mistakes in the course of their works both the late Yaradua and Jonathan were notorious for sacrificing such aides. It is important therefore for Buhari's aides to know early in his regime where they stand with him.
Given the increasingly disappearing halo around the president, a re-invented Buhari can use the lowered bar of expectation to 'over achieve'. This was exactly what happened to Professor Attahiru Jega, who after demanding mouth watering sums as a condition for organising free and fair elections in 2011 (a whopping N89.5 billion was voted for the cleaning up of the voters' register alone) faltered and failed in his first test on April 2 2011. After cancelling the parliamentary elections mid way through the exercise, the bar of public expectations became so much lowered that by simply exceeding the ground bar set by Professor Maurice Iwu's INEC, his conduct of the 2011 elections was suddenly hailed as the 'freest and fairest' in our political history.
I will recommend the following to aid a second re-invention of the President:
One, Buhari's re-invention during the 2015 election did magic among the several sceptics in the southern part of the country. Suddenly a man, who was successfully labelled (rightly or wrongly) as 'provincial' and a 'religious bigot', became comfortable wearing attires from different cultural, ethnic and regional areas and was warmly welcomed by various ethnic and regional leaders – as one of them. That singular re-invention helped to soften his negative perceptions and helped him electorally especially in the south-west. Unfortunately since coming to power, the President has abandoned those symbolic gestures that widened his appeal beyond the north. He needs to rediscover and expand on those gestures.
Two, the President's decision to exclude people from the south-east from his choice of personal political aides was bad politics. True, the President is constitutionally at liberty to choose his personal aides from wherever he wants. But in politics what is expedient may not necessarily be right. In our current era of social media triumphalism, virtually every segment of this country has a nuisance value (a former monopoly of the 'Lagos press') which can be extremely discomforting if not well managed. Groups like Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) have gladly tapped into the signal resulting from that early exclusion.
Three, related to the above is that it is important not to make the mistake that former President Jonathan made in regarding criticisms of his government from sections of the country as merely attempts to bring down his government. I have in several writings explained Boko Haram as symptomatic of alienated groups delinking from the Nigerian state and regarding the state as an enemy. In this sense, there is need for more creative means of engaging alienated groups like IPOB and Niger Delta militants. There is no point defeating Boko Haram in the North-east only to confront other Boko Harams across the country.
Four, the President needs to understand that many members of his cabinet are regarded as lacklustre – compared to what the country was used to under both Obasanjo and Jonathan. With the exception of a few ministers and aides, not many people are convinced that the President has put square pegs in square holes in his choice of ministers and other aides.
Every crisis, they say, embodies some opportunities. I can see in Buhari's recent apology an opportunity for another beginning for the President.
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